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Governing Geoengineering: Hot Topic For a Warming Planet

• March 28, 2012 • 4:15 PM

Before mankind can make big steps about widespread changes to natural process that affect climate change, it needs to take the baby steps of figuring out how to oversee the decisions.

Research scientist Gail Osherenko is blogging for Miller-McCune from the Planet Under Pressure Conference in London. For other posts from her, click here.

As I walked out of a panel on geoengineering governance this morning at the Planet Under Pressure Conference taking place in London, I was handed a flyer calling on governments to “Act Immediately to COOL THE ARCTIC.” I do not take the dire warnings of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group lightly, but a call to use geoengineering among other means to cool the Arctic is both premature and scary.

As the panel’s experts explained, there are some types of geoengineering that may be cheap to deploy and likely to be effective at reducing global temperatures. The most promising methods of “solar radiation management” involve either brightening marine stratus clouds that reflect sunlight back into space and so cooling the Earth, or putting airborne particulates, like sulphate particles, into the upper atmosphere to temporarily block sunlight. This use of artificial aerosols could, in theory, produce a “Mount Pinatubo effect,” mimicking large volcanic eruptions that release millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the Earth’s stratosphere.

If that’s the good news, here’s the bad: we don’t really know what effects solar radiation management might have, particularly locally and regionally. Some areas, for example, might get torrents of rain and others draught. Resulting hazy skies could be troublesome for solar power, astronomy, and remote sensing.

But the focus of this panel of experts from the UK wasn’t to sell us on geoengineering or scare us. They work on the tough issues of how to manage or regulate the evolving science on solar radiation, ocean fertilization (adding iron or other nutrients to the ocean to increase marine food production and sequester carbon dioxide), and other ways of intervening with atmospheric or oceanic processes to reduce harm from changing climate.

Steve Rayner, director of Oxford University’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, reassured us that “we are still dealing with technological ‘imaginaries,’ not functioning technologies,” and further that “geoengineering is only likely to be implemented if it is generally viewed as safe, effective and affordable.”

A skeptic about the utility of international treaties in establishing effective environmental policy, Rayner emphasized that regulation could follow from principles determined by science panels of the political process in individual countries.

In the case of ocean fertilization, for example, powerful international agreements already cover what can and can’t be “placed” on the Earth’s seas, explained Chris Vivian of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Agricultural Science, a ministry of Britain’s government.

Andy Parker, from the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative reminded the audience that scientists often work on odd things that they don’t necessarily favor. Geoengineering, and particularly solar radiation management, fall into this category. The initiative and other experts on the panel focused not on developing the technology, but on overseeing research on them — how and when to regulate experiments.

Parker noted that the group’s 2011 report, “Solar Radiation Management: the governance of research,” divided management stages into five categories: theoretical computer/desk studies (requiring no regulation), indoor lab studies, small outdoor field trials, medium and large-scale field trials, and, finally, deployment. (The initiative is a collaborative effort by Environmental Defense Fund, and two scientific organizations, The Royal Society and TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world.)

The message they deliver is that decisions of when and how to regulate are inherently political because people have different perceptions of risk.

“Even deciding what is a medium- and what a large-scale trial is contentious,” Parker explained.

The governance initiative ran meetings in China, Pakistan and India, and this year will hold meetings in Africa, to share its knowledge about solar radiation management and gather public opinion on it. So far, says Parker, it’s learned that people — while pleased to be consulted — are skeptical about the use of solar radiation management, and that they would prefer to work together on its deployment rather than have individual countries make unilateral decisions about its use.

The prospect of geoengineering is polarizing, and there’s a large potential for erosion of trust. A major concern, for example, is that it might be developed by militaries in secret, without public knowledge or input.

The really tricky issues are not the technical ones, but the political and societal ones.

According to Parker, the approach of the experts who produced the governance initiative report is “to share knowledge with the public — beyond aging white men from U.K. and Commonwealth who will not be around when people are more seriously considering deployment of SRM — and to get feedback.”

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Gail Osherenko
Gail Osherenko is a writer, filmmaker, educator and environmental activist. She holds a law degree from the University of California, Davis, has worked as a lawyer in the three branches of the federal government, and taught environmental law and policy courses at the university level (focusing on the Arctic, wildlife, coasts and oceans) at UCSB, Dartmouth College, Vermont Law School, and the Center for Northern Studies. She is currently a project scientist at UCSB's Marine Science Institute and serves on the board of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara.

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